The pragmatic success story of Fabio Capello

The pragmatic success story of Fabio Capello

Fabio Capello appeared to be on the brink. Two victories in his last 10 games in charge of the Russia national team prompted a crisis meeting with his bosses on Wednesday, talks that the 69-year-old is said to have survived solely because his current contract is too big for the country’s FA to buy out. After arguably being the 2014 World Cup’s most disappointing team, qualification for Euro 2016 hangs in the balance with Russia failing to win four of their six games to date. It is not what citizens of the 2018 World Cup host nation envisaged when the Italian was handed the reins in 2012.

It would be unfair, though, to remember Capello purely for his experiences in international football. After all, he was once one of the world’s best managers at club level, a winner of seven league titles with Milan, Roma, Juventus and Real Madrid and a man who reached three Champions League finals. Not only was he highly successful in terms of silverware won, Capello was the game’s ultimate pragmatist.


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‘Philosophy’ has become a buzz word in the world of modern-day football management. Being said to possess one carries an intellectual air about it; the phrase ‘we won’t compromise our principles’ routinely met with nods of approbation.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, largely has negative connotations. Being pragmatic in football suggests a dull, safety-first style of play and an inability or unwillingness to entertain the public by playing the game the ‘right way’.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists pragmatism as ‘dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations’. There is arguably no-one who meets that description within football more than Fabio Capello.

An excellent holding midfielder with Roma, Juventus and Milan in his days as a player, Capello’s 24-year managerial career has been characterised by remarkable tactical flexibility, with the Italian regularly switching between formations depending on the particular club or situation within which he finds himself.

Assessing the tools available and then deciding on a system and approach may sound like the obvious thing to do, but this way of working relies upon extraordinary adaptability and self-belief; indeed, while there is perhaps something more romantic about the dogmatism of Johan Cruyff and Arsène Wenger, there is still much to admire about letting yourself be entirely swayed by circumstance, adjusting in real-time and using your skills to coach a variety of tactical setups.

Capello’s attitude was summed up perfectly in an interview with FourFourTwo: “Every time I get new players, I evolve,” the Italian told the magazine in 2007. “You have to look closely at the players you have, analyse them and know how to bring the very best out of every single one. How do you do that? By finding a playing style, a system, that allows the players to produce their best”.


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Capello’s first full-time coaching role came in 1991 with Milan, the place where he had ended his playing career eleven years previously. The Rossoneri had just won two back-to-back European Cups under the guidance of Arrigo Sacchi and, despite inheriting a talented squad, continuing the side’s success was considered a difficult task for a managerial novice.

Sacchi’s 4-4-2 formation remained under Capello, and there was no evidence of a major change in style in the first couple of years. There was, after all, no real need to induct sweeping reforms: this Milan outfit was not just packed with wonderful talent but also had a great balance to it, a watertight Italian backline of Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini supplemented by the attacking talents of Dutch trio Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit.

Milan scored 74 goals and conceded just 21 in their unbeaten, title-winning campaign of 1991-92 and netted a further 65 when they retained the scudetto the following season. The Rossoneri racked up some impressive wins during that time, defeating Napoli 5-0, Fiorentina 7-3 and Foggia 8-2, and Capello received enormous credit for keeping the team hungry and on top domestically.

In terms of Milan’s approach going forward, van Basten’s worsening ankle condition was the most significant aspect of the 1992-93 campaign. Originally sustained in 1987, the injury had dogged the striker’s entire time on the peninsula, and Milan’s 1-0 defeat to Marseille in the 1993 Champions League final would mark the premature end to a brilliant career.

The loss of his principal attacking weapon forced Capello into a tactical rethink and, although the 4-4-2 configuration remained, there was a markedly different outlook in 1993-94. The replacement of Rijkaard with Marcel Desailly in the centre of midfield symbolised the change in mentality. Rather than constantly pressing high and looking for more goals as had been the case under Sacchi and in Capello’s first two years, Milan began to fall back on the strength of their defence, often scoring early and then shutting up shop.

The defining moment of the season was undoubtedly the 4-0 destruction of Barcelona in the European Cup final but, while this was a phenomenal performance, it was not indicative of the year as a whole. Milan scored on just 36 occasions in Serie A – one more than relegated pair Udinese and Atalanta – but conceded only 15 goals on their way to another scudetto. Eight 0-0s, nine 1-0s and 21 clean sheets were a stark contrast to the free-flowing football of the previous two terms, with Capello successfully demonstrating his tactical pragmatism for the first time.

Following a fourth Serie A title in five years in 1996, Capello left Milan and moved overseas for the first time in his career; Spain was his destination of choice, and the Italian was unveiled as Arsenio Iglesias’s successor in the Real Madrid dugout. Los Blancos had finished the previous campaign in sixth place, their lowest final position in almost two decades, and Capello’s remit was simply to win La Liga in the absence of continental competition.

Capello’s final season with Milan had seen occasional experiments with a 4-3-3 in an attempt to get the best out of attacking trio Roberto Baggio, George Weah and Dejan Savićević, and it was this setup that he employed at the Bernabéu .

The system permitted the inclusion of Raúl, Davor Šuker and Predrag Mijatović in the starting line-up and, aided by Roberto Carlos bombing on from left-back, Real produced some fantastic attacking football. The league was won by a slender two-point margin, but ‘Don Fabio’ – as he was nicknamed by the Spanish press – departed at the end of May, falling out with president Lorenzo Sanz and criticised by the club’s fans for frequently ‘relegating’ Raúl to the left-wing.

After a hugely disappointing single-season return to Milan which saw the club finish tenth, Roma was Capello’s next stop in 1999. Having assessed the options available to him, Capello selected a different starting formation to the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 used at his two former employers. The Giallorossi’s 3-4-1-2 was settled upon for two main reasons: firstly, a free role behind two strikers was recognised as Francesco Totti’s best position and, secondly, the offensive quality and energy of Cafu meant he was wasted as an orthodox full-back.

The arrangement worked perfectly, and Roma won the third scudetto in their history in 2001. The double pivot of either Cristiano Zanetti or Emerson alongside Damiano Tommasi provided a solid base at the back of midfield, allowing Cafu and Vincent Candela to surge forward as wing-backs, while the outside centre-backs, Walter Samuel and Jonathan Zebina, were mobile enough to defend the vacated wide areas. Totti was the star of the show, though, scoring 13 goals and laying on many more for strikers Vincenzo Montella, Gabriel Batistuta and Marco Delvecchio.

Capello subsequently revealed that his tactics at Roma were partly based on the culture of the club. According to the former midfielder, Roma did not have the winning mentality of the likes of Milan or Juventus, so needed to believe in themselves before they could challenge for major honours. A tactical approach that focused on taking the initiative and controlling the ball was part of this process of realigning Roma’s mentality to something more positive.

Capello did similar at Real Madrid, where he returned in 2006 after spending a couple of campaigns at Juventus. As had been the case a decade previously, the Italian inherited an underachieving Real side, one which had not won the league in three seasons. A squad that contained Ronaldo, Robinho, Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham was evidence of the outgoing Florentino Pérez’s galáctico project, but Capello focused on teaching Los Blancos the hitherto unlearned values of teamwork, unity and togetherness, managing to find a way of playing that promoted the collective over the individual. Lining up in a 4-4-2, Real won a gripping title race thanks to a superior head-to-record with rivals Barcelona.

The manager’s pragmatism was also evidenced in another way: Capello banished Beckham to the reserves in January, telling the press that the Englishman had played his last game for the club after signing a five-year contract with LA Galaxy, but recalled him a month later. Capello had once acted likewise at Roma, fielding Vincenzo Montella in the decisive title-deciding game against Parma in 2001 just days after a bust-up with the striker.

Despite delivering Real’s 13th La Liga trophy, Capello was harshly dismissed at the end of the season. After 16 years in club management, the then-61 year-old decided to turn his hand to the international game, and was appointed England head coach in early 2008.

Capello’s time at the helm is remembered primarily for an uninspiring 4-4-2 formation, but the Italian actually deployed a number of different systems, albeit in qualifying matches and friendlies rather than the 2010 World Cup, his only tournament in charge.

A 4-2-3-1 was initially trialled with Steven Gerrard positioned behind Wayne Rooney and ahead of Gareth Barry and Owen Hargreaves in holding midfield roles; on other occasions, Rooney occupied the number 10 position behind Emile Heskey, with Gerrard on the left and a more natural wide player such as Aaron Lennon deployed on the right. Following the debacle in South Africa in 2010, Capello moved towards a 4-3-3 with Darren Bent operating as the central striker and Rooney selected wide left. Once again, Capello proved himself adept at adapting to changing circumstances.

Notwithstanding his proclivity for altering his team’s shape depending on the tools at his disposal, there have always been certain areas of continuity in all of Capello’s teams.

The first is a fierce commitment to the importance of the collective and the individual’s awareness of his role within it. At Milan, for example, Dejan Savićević was Capello’s best creative force but was often marginalised: Capello certainly appreciated his talent, but was uncompromising in his belief that ability should not come at the expense of fundamentals such as discipline, team shape and work ethic.

Another constant is the recurring presence of at least one strong, defensive central midfielder. Even in his formative years as a manager, this preference set him apart from his predecessor Sacchi who disliked specialist positions and insisted that the team should attack and defend as a single organism.

Capello did not subscribe to such a theory, instead encouraging certain players to focus solely on breaking up play and shielding the defence. The likes of Marcel Desailly, Olivier Dacourt, Mahamadou Diarra, Emerson and Gareth Barry were highly valued by Capello for their intelligent positioning and reading of the game.


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Russia’s poor performances in Euro 2016 qualifying mean that the Italian may not last as manager until the 2018 World Cup as planned, with his hefty pay packet seemingly the only thing preventing him from the sack. Should the RFU somehow find a way to pay out Capello’s £15.8 million contract, it is difficult to see him remaining in charge for much longer.

Despite recent disappointments at international level, though, the 69-year-old’s managerial career has generally been successful, not just because of the trophies he has lifted but also because of the versatility and tactical pragmatism demonstrated throughout.

From 4-4-2 at Milan to 4-3-3 with Real and 3-4-1-2 at Roma, Capello has displayed extraordinary flexibility, courage and coaching expertise in switching between systems and approaches based on his current squad of players and, while his aloof man-management style has attracted criticism, Capello’s tactical aptitude cannot really be questioned. Pragmatism, as well as sticking to a single philosophy, is worthy of respect.

By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball

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